"Everything is as it should be."

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Cold War: A Review

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****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 4.5 our of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. A fantastic foreign film that is both personal, political and philosophical that boasts tremendous performances from both of its leads.

Cold War, written and directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, is a Polish drama set during the Cold War that tells the story of the love between a young singer Zula, and the musical director who discovers her, Wiktor. The film stars Joanna Kulig as Zula and Tomasz Kot as Wiktor.

Just when I thought 2018 was to be officially designated as cinematically irredeemable, a bunch of foreign films have appeared late in the year that have been a lifeline to artistic redemption. Four of the best movies this year are foreign films I’ve seen in the last month, Shoplifters (Japan), Roma (Mexico), Happy as Lazzaro (Italy) and now Cold War (Poland).

Of course, context is everything and a less gracious interpretation of my adoration of these four foreign films could be that their artistic success is a result of their being in such stark and glaring contrast to the cinematically vapid garbage vomited upon the movie-going public by Hollywood this year. Regardless of why foreign films are so good this year and Hollywood films so bad…the fact remains that it is decidedly so and I will simply enjoy quality cinema without compromise where I can find it.

Which brings us to Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War. Cold War is a beautiful and brilliant film that is both personal and political, poignant and prophetic. Shot in a stunning black and white that highlights a bleak but bold aesthetic, Cold War is both visually striking and dramatically potent.

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Pawlikowski, who also directed the Academy Award Best Foreign Picture winner Ida (2014), deftly crafts a lean film that is able to thoroughly tell the story of Zula and Wiktor amidst the wider Cold War that comes in under 90 minutes. Pawlikowski trims all the fat from the narrative and we are left with a strikingly effective and deeply insightful film that flows seamlessly through decades of personal and political history without skipping a beat.

Cinematographer Lukasz Zal masterfully uses the stark black and white to enhance the sub-text and narrative by deftly painting with shadow and light. Zal’s framing is impeccable, as evidenced by his very subtle but extremely effective and polished use of mirrors throughout the film to highlight the difficulty in discerning what is real and what is illusion. There is a shot of an after-concert party with a mirror for a wall that is so ingenious, precise and finely detailed I nearly fell out of my seat.

Pawlikowski and Zal never hit you over the head with their artistic virtuosity, as it is so understated as to be sublime, and creates an exquisite cinematic experience that is not only gorgeous to behold but extremely useful in propelling the narrative.

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Joanna Kulig gives a transcendent and mesmerizing performance as the singer Zula. Kulig is a luminous talent and she is blessed with a vivacious, vibrant and voluminous magnetism that is unrelentingly irresistable. Ms. Kulig’s Zula is a wild animal from the hinterlands of Poland and she is as palpably dangerous, untamable and uncontainable as she is volcanically compelling, charismatic and complicated. Zula is a singer of traditional Polish folk songs and jazz, but she has a rock and roll soul as evidenced by her ecstatic and deliriously contagious reaction upon hearing Bill Haley and the Comets in one electric scene.

Ms. Kulig is like a Polish Jennifer Lawrence, stunningly beautiful with a relatable groundedness and charming fearlessness. Simply said, viewers, much like the character Wiktor, are unable to take their eyes off of Zula whenever she is on screen.

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Tomasz Kot is equally effective as Wiktor but in much less dynamic ways than Ms. Kulig. Mr. Kot’s Wiktor is much more intellectual than the visceral Zula, but once she awakens the primal nature within him there is no putting it back to sleep. Wiktor is at first a rational man who is securely contained in a distant coolness, but as the film progresses and he gets ever closer to the inferno that is Zula, the ice melts and with it goes Wiktor’s rationalism.

What is fascinating in Cold War, is that the love story of Zula and Wiktor is such fertile ground for very profound political, social and philosophical symbolism. Zula is not just a firebrand from the back woods of Poland, she IS the Polish anima. While she may be swayed from one camp to another, be it the lure of western decadence or the security of Soviet protection, she is ultimately true only to the “folk” of Poland. In this way, Cold War is a meditation on the nationalism that is currently spreading across the globe in general and Europe in particular. Throughout history, Poland may fall under the rule of the Soviets or the West or some other power, but it will never fall under their spell. As Zula and Wiktor show us, Poland is for the Poles, and only Poles can truly understand it…which is true no matter what nation you plug into that statement.

Both Wiktor and Zula find “freedom”, at least as freedom is defined by western capitalism, but they don’t experience it as freedom at all but rather as decadence that is corrosive to their hearts and souls. The “easy living” of the west is a fool’s gold and Zula and Wiktor would rather be prisoners to political oppression in the east than slaves to their own desires in the “free” west. Zula and Wiktor learn that the “lie” of Soviet communism is dreadful, but the even bigger lie of the capitalist west is even more destructive to them.

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Zula struggles to survive no matter where they go in Europe because at heart, she is the Polish countryside, and it is only there where she can find transformation and transcedence, and only with Wiktor. Early in the film Wiktor stumbles upon the ruins of a church and discovers giant female eyes painted on the wall that look right through him and watch him wherever he goes. Wiktor then looks up and sees a large round opening where the church roof used to be that reveals the sky. This circle, a symbol of wholeness, is the key to the film, as it reveals that both Wiktor and Zula, must go on their grueling journey of heart and soul in order to complete that circle and be transformed. The circle is atop a Catholic Church because the Catholic Church is the container for the spirit of the Polish people and the Polish anima - Zula. The Catholic archetypes are the ones that resonate in Poland, and Wiktor and Zula need to transcend the limitations of not only the Cold War powers that govern them, but also the religion trying to contain them. Their love is a love of wholeness that is as boundless as the heavens that dance above that whole in the church’s circular roof, but they can only attain it by going through the archetypes of the church.

In conclusion, Cold War is a stunning film about love, loss, identity and artistry that is dramatically powerful and politically poignant. Visually stunning and propelled by glorious performances from its two leads Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot, Cold War is a must see for any cinephile. More conventionally inclined viewers may struggle with the film as, like most foreign films, it is rather existential in nature and is less rudimentary in its storytelling. That said, if you love movies or have a cinematically adventurous heart and open mind, then you should definitely see Cold War.

©2019

Happy as Lazzaro: A Review

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****THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!! THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!****

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. An insightful Italian fable that eloquently and poignantly speaks to our modern world and our fallen nature. Be forewarned, it is a foreign film, so those with more conventional tastes may find it a bit odd…but it really is worth giving a try if you can.

Happy as Lazzaro, an Italian drama written and directed by Alice Rohrwacher, is the story of a good-hearted simpleton, Lazzaro, who lives and works in a farming community in Italy that gets turned upside down as the modern world encroaches upon the isolated village. The film stars Adriano Tordiolo as Lazzaro, with supporting turns from Nicoletta Braschi, Sergi Lopez and Alba Rohrwacher.

Happy as Lazzaro is a fable that insightfully exposes the “progress” of 21st century capitalism that has crushed most under its heel and has broken the spirit and stolen the souls of all those fall under its spell.

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Lazzaro is exquisitely portrayed by Adriano Tordiolo who imbues the character with a genuine humanity that is impeccably good-hearted without ever being cloying or gratuitous. Tordiolo gives Lazzarro a distinct physicality, his arms hanging straight down by his sides, his posture erect, his heart exposed. Like a rural Italian Chauncey Gardner, Tordiolo’s doe eyed Lazzaro is immune from cynicism and illuminated by an eternal optimism.

Lazzareo is at once a holy fool, a saint and a martyr. He is the memory of innocence and the hope of salvation. His entry into the modern world is reminiscent of the scene from The Brothers Karamozov where Christ meets The Grand Inquisitor, echoes of which are seen when Lazzaro is thrown out of a Catholic church and the sacred music follows him. Lazzaro, like Christ, is a shepherd who is unwanted in our cruel and dehumanized world.

Writer/director Rohrwacher deftly tells this gem of a story and allows the narrative to unfold at a leisurely but effective pace. Rohrwacher exquisitely creates Lazzaro’s idyllic world, and then masterfully pulls the rug out from underneath it and the viewer.

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In the latter portion of the film, Rohrwacher expertly uses tempeture, both climate and color, to indicate how Lazzaro’s world has changed, from the warmth of the old village to the foreboding bleakness of the modern city.

Lazzaro’s village, Inviolata, is a symbol of both innocence and a quaint version of shared feudal exploitation. The simplicity of the earlier part of the film is then overtaken by the dark inevitability in the latter part of the movie. Everyone from Inviolata is violated and learns from this violation to spend their time out of that Garden of Eden violating others. Rorhwacher shows that the old ways of exploitation in the village have metastasized and are now global in scale, but the modern world is actually much worse because its exploitation strips the comfort, security and solace of community away from people. The modern world turns everyone into a hustler and grifter, afflicted with a narcissistic myopia focused solely on their own survival at the expense of others.

As the film teaches us, capitalism is exploitation upon exploitation, a cancer of competition where everybody is exploiting somebody…the lone exception being Lazzaro who only gets exploited but never exploits, for he is in this world but not of it. Only saints like Lazzaro can keep their integrity and humanity in tact under capitalism, but integrity and humanity is no protection from the corrupting beast of the free market or the wolf of mankind’s darker nature.

Lazzaro stands guard against the wolf, he communicates with the wolf, he knows the wolf and the wolf knows him. Lazzaro is not afraid, he is immune to fear, which is epidemic in capitalism and is also its fuel…fear of lack, fear of other, fear of self…keep us all on in a state of pain and capitalism sells us the snake oil to soothe our discomfort. Lazzaro is devoid of all of these fears and, even though he is a tireless and selfless worker, is an existential threat to capitalism.

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Lazzaro is a saint, literally the last good man, an innocent whose soul and spirit is pure even though he has been exploited many times over. In the modern capitalist world all things are violated and violate…the church, government, business, people. It is no coincidence the climactic scene of the film takes place in a bank and shows that the spiritual corrosive of capitalism turns everyone into wolves…hungry and insatiable and afraid…always on the hunt for the weaker, needing to exploit…in the end, the actual wolf is replaced by us.

In conclusion, I was deeply moved by Happy as Lazzaro as it is a powerful fable that insightfully speaks to our current spiritual void and how capitalism feeds our darkest impulses. Lazzaro is like a character from a dream who comes to remind us who we really are but have long forgotten, it will do you good to spend two hours with Lazzaro trying to remember. Happy as Lazzaro is currently on Netflix and I whole-heartedly encourage you to watch it.

©2018

Shoplifters: A Review

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****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. I thoroughly enjoyed this intimate yet deeply profound and philosophical film, but be forewarned, this is a foreign, arthouse film, so those with more conventional cinematic tastes should stay as far away from this movie as possible.

Shoplifters, written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda, is the story of a poor family in Tokyo who rely on shoplifting and petty crimes in order to make ends meet. The film stars Lily Franky as Osamu - father of the family, and Sakuro Ando as Nobuyo the mother, with Kairi Jo playing their son Shota and Miyu Sasaki their daughter Yuri.

Shoplifters is a distinctly foreign film in that on its surface it may seem to the less cinematically sophisticated to be innocuously mundane and even boring, but to those patient enough to peer beneath that veneer of the ordinary, they are rewarded with the discovery of a sublime universe teeming with human drama and intrigue.

Shoplifters is an original and fascinating film that explores the meaning and purpose of truth, knowledge, family and the need for human connection. Like a Russian Matryoshka doll, Shoplifters appears to be one thing, but once you look inside another and another and another layer is revealed, and everything you’ve previously seen takes on a different meaning in hindsight.

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On the surface, Shoplifters is a rather deliberately paced story of an ordinary family as they endure the suffocating nature of working class poverty in modern day Tokyo. This social/cultural narrative is insightful enough all on its own, as it is a profound statement on the cancer that is 21st century capitalism, where everything is commodified, including our humanity. But as the story progresses and more truths are discovered and revealed, the viewer’s perspective shifts, and the foundation upon which you’ve made assumptions about this seemingly simple family sways uneasily under your feet.

As more truth is revealed, the social commentary of the film doesn’t lose its impact, but quite to the contrary, it becomes even more profound. The film’s cultural critique gains a staggering degree of power and profundity as it adds narrative dimensions in the second half of the film.

Shoplifters forces us to question all of the assumptions we have about the things we know…or more accurately…the things we think we know. As the film shows, the rock upon which our own moral, ethical and intellectual beliefs are built may very well be sand. Shoplifters shows us that we are swimming in a deep and mysterious ocean and yet, as the saying goes, “fish don’t even know he’s wet.”

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After I watched Shoplifters I kept thinking of the line from Oliver Stone’s 1991 masterpiece JFK, where one of the characters, frustrated with the challenge to his conventional thinking, shouts in retort, “but you only know who your Daddy is because your Momma told you so!” And so it is in our world of manufactured consent, incessant propaganda and unlimited marketing and manipulation where we are led around by our nose and suffer from an interminable myopia and narcissism. Like subjects in Plato’s cave watching shadows dance upon the wall, we all think we know what we know, but when we walk outside the cave we realize we know nothing…and have known nothing all along. In that way, Shoplifters, although it is the polar opposite in most ways as it contains no action and is very slow and plodding, is a philosophical cousin to The Matrix films.

Hirokazu Kore-eda, who has directed such notable films as Nobody Knows, Still Walking, Like Father, Like Son and After the Storm, has a deft and confident directorial touch with Shoplifters, as he never pushes the pace but rather lulls the audience into a false sense of security and suckers them into projecting their own bourgeois assumptions onto the story and characters.

Kore-eda’s masterful camera movement and shot composition draw the viewer into the family at the center of the story, as we share their intimate world we too become members and collaborators in their life of petty crime.

Kore-eda creates a stultifying sense of claustrophobia and a lack of personal freedom in this darker side of Tokyo, where much like in our current techno-dystopian world, privacy is a fleeting luxury. For example, Shota is forced to sleep in a small closet more akin to a coffin than a bedroom, Aki (a pseudo-Aunt) makes a living anonymously exposing her private life to strangers, and Osamu and Nobuyo can’t remember the last time they shared a moment alone together.

Kore-eda is one of the masters of Japanese film working today, and Shoplifters is a testament to his cinematic skill and storytelling prowess as it uses the intimate and unique working of this one family to tell a philosophically serious and politically insightful story of our troubled times.

The acting in Shoplifters is solid across the board. Sakuro Ando is exquisite and transcendant as the mother of the family, Nobuyo. Ando’s Nobuyo is at once pragmatic and ruthless but also gentle, kind and loving. Ando imbues Nobuyo with a deep and palpable wound (symbolized by a burn scar on her arm) that is forever a mystery but always lurking within her soulful eyes, that are keen enough to see the same wound in Yuri.

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Lily Franky as Osuma is terrific as a man who desperately tries to be a father, but whose road to hell is paved with good intentions as he is only capable of, at best, making it all up as he goes. Osuma is a fascinating and compelling character, and it is a testament to Lily’s talent that he is simultaneously both a deplorable and sympathetic character.

Mayu Matsuoka brings a sense of wounded allure and innocent danger to the role of Aki, that in lesser hands may have been lost in the wash. Aki is the one of the group most naturally equipped to survive but also the one most vulnerable to being a victim to her own weakness. Unlike Nobuyo, Aki’s wound has no scar over it. Matsuoka does a wonderful job of creating a sense of melancholy and ennui about Aki that at times feels both dangerously combustible and also self-destructive.

The child actors, Kairi Jo and Miyu Sasaki also give excellent performances that feel genuine and grounded because they don’t feel like they are acting at all and the same is true of the grandmother, expertly played by the late Kirin Kiki.

In conclusion, Shoplifters is a film that subtly morphs and changes with every second you watch it, and as I have learned since seeing it, with every minute that passes after its over too. It is, in its own way, mesmerizing and hypnotic, enticing viewers into a story that appears to be one thing but ends up being another. I loved the film, but I love foreign films in general, and Japanese films in particular. If you are not a devout devotee of the arthouse, and in this case, the Japanese arthouse, Shoplifters’ deliberate pace, cryptic dialogue and unusual narrative will be much too much to endure. But if you love Japanese cinema or have a taste for the art house, definitely go check out Shoplifters as it is a fascinating ride, one that I’m not sure I have fully completed.

©2018